Fulfilled – The Christian Reading of the Old Testament

“That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet…”

This is a familiar line in the gospels – particularly in St. Matthew. It signals a moment that the gospel writer (and thus the tradition) sees an action or saying of Jesus as somehow being a “fulfillment” of something within the Old Testament. For the confession of the primitive Church is that what Jesus did is “in accordance with the Scriptures” (Old Testament). ¬†Looking at these instances can be a good way to see precisely what the tradition thought “in accordance” actually meant.

Several things are obvious when we look at the New Testament’s use of the concept of “fulfillment.” Prophecy is not at all a prediction. Indeed, there is rarely anything in the story of Christ or within the cited Old Testament passages that inherently link the two. Modern scholars (of the liberal sort) would (and have) argued that the gospel writers use the Old Testament out of context and with no seeming method of control.

Fulfillment is its own unique concept.¬†Fulfillment clearly has a meaning similar to “completion.” It assumes that something incomplete and unfinished has been posited by statements within the Old Testament. These seem to hang over the world as unanswered questions – that somehow must be answered.

The use of Old Testament quotes in “fulfillment” passages seem to have a relationship independent of history and even literal meaning in some cases. This independence can be sometimes be so radical that the only thing required is simply that something be stated in the Old Testament.

I will offer a few examples (there are twenty-or-so instances in the gospels) and then draw some conclusions.

The first instance of fulfilled in the New Testament is the verse (famous during Christmas season), Matthew 1:22-23

So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”

It is a reference to Isaiah 7:10-14

Moreover the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your god; ask it either in the depth or in the height above.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!” Then he said, “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and be with child, and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel. Curds and honey he shall eat, that he may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings…

Another New Testament example, referring to the Holy Family settling in Nazareth (Matthew 2:23):

And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Scholars are actually at a loss to account, with confidence, what Old Testament prophecy is here said to be fulfilled.

Another – Matthew 13:34-35, comes after a chapter’s worth of parables:

All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: “I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world.”

This is a reference to Psalm 78:1-3:

Give ear, O my people, to my law; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us, etc.

There is nothing in this passage that makes it seem remotely prophetic. It is written by the author to his readers, introducing the content of the Psalm itself.

A primary aspect of these examples is that they are making no reference to a passage that seems remotely “messianic” in its context. There are other examples that certainly make use of Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” passages and seem more clearly contextual – but these examples show that this is no way required by the gospel writers.

The example of Christ as a “Nazarene,” seems to be an extreme stretch (in all of the scholarly speculations concerning its reference). Thus one conclusion – the only requirement by a gospel writer for the fulfillment of an Old Testament saying, is for the saying to have occurred in some manner in the Old Testament and to seem applicable to something in Christ’s life and ministry.

In such a usage, the OT seems to be a random collection of possible quotes. Obviously, the historical narrative of the OT is important to Christian thought. The sermon of St. Stephen in Acts 7 is a summary of the history of Israel (with the point that Israel has repeatedly rejected those sent by God). But it is appropriate to ask the question, if Psalm 78:1-3 is seen as referring to Christ’s use of parables some 900 or more years later, how does the gospel writer (and thus the tradition of the primitive Church) see the Old Testament?

It is obvious beyond measure that the author of the gospel (and the Christian community) is not asking, “What did the Psalm writer have in mind when he wrote this?” A New Testament example of this attitude can be found in reference to the statement by the high priest, Caiaphas, in John 11:

And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” Now this he did not say on his own; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation.

The gospel writer does not think prophecy requires the understanding or intention of the one who utters it. Caiaphas means one thing, God means another.

If the Christian meaning of the Old Testament is not necessarily related to a writer’s intention or understanding nor written, how is it written? It is, at times, written with intention and understanding (Caiaphas certainly knew what he was saying on one level), but it also functions and signifies (in the mind of the primitive Christian community) in a manner divorced from its context and authorial intention. It exists as a saying.

How then does the primitive community know how to read the Old Testament? The Gospels themselves explain this. On the road to Emmaus, following his resurrection, Christ speaks to two disciples:

And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.

And later, in Jerusalem, the risen Christ appears to his disciples and says:

“These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.

The method of interpretation is something called “opening their understanding.” This method is why tradition is essential in true Christianity. The method is itself tradition. The gospels are an example of that tradition at work. Tradition, “handing down,” is not the passing on of information – it is the opened mind opening a mind.

What we most often want is a means of understanding that does not require opening (please note – none of this has anything to do with the modern practice of being “open-minded”). The examples of fulfilled Scripture do not permit a rationalized explanation (not one that could then be repeated as a technique). The opened understanding, however, is quite able not only to see what has already been given, but to perceive what is being given as well.

This is the only means of “rightly dividing the word of truth.” It is, of course, a nightmare for those who want a reading of Scripture independent of the Church. But such readings seem to belong to a school of thought not represented by the New Testament itself.

The next article will look at the meaning of fulfilled.